Rumblings about dramatic increases coming in natural gas and electricity prices began earlier in the year, with utilities seeking approval from state regulators for rate hikes in the fall. In mid-November news outlets reported that Eversource had planned a 43 percent rate hike and National Grid a 64 percent rate hike for electricity in eastern Massachusetts with similar rates for western Mass. Proposed natural gas rates are going up 25–38 percent, depending upon locality. And average home heating oil retail prices in the region are up approximately 50 percent compared with last year, according to Mass.gov.
However you slice it, it’s about to get more expensive to stay warm and keep the lights on. This is particularly dire for people with low incomes, for whom the monthly utility bills consume a much larger percent of their take-home pay. When budgets are overwhelmed, people may have to choose between which basic needs they can afford.
Prices typically do fluctuate up in the colder months here, but with inflation and world events as volatile as they are, this year’s spike is especially dramatic. Almost 15 years ago, in the teeth of the Great Recession, the Boston Foundation established the Food & Fuel Fund to address the added winter needs of our neighbors. It has been supporting nonprofit organizations working in the space ever since.
Grants have helped these organizations stock and run food pantries, assist clients in finding social services they need and keeping the heat on. For example, National Consumer Law Center Staff Attorney Charlie Harak says NCLC’s Project Stay Connected has been made possible by the Food & Fuel Fund.
“Massachusetts households are now facing unprecedented price increases for heating oil, natural gas, and electricity. For its part, NCLC continues to offer trainings on how consumers can protect their utilities from termination and pay the heating bills, with more than 250 people attending our most recent training.”
Meanwhile, another veteran Food & Fuel partner Women’s Lunch Place served more than 111,000 meals over its last fiscal year. That’s more than at any other time in its history, according to Executive Director Jennifer Hanlon Wigon. And a number not likely to shrink anytime soon. Wigon says, “The community of women who come to Women’s Lunch Place, most of whom are from historically marginalized populations, are severely impacted by the burden of inflation. Rising prices erode their earnings, savings, and benefits and create situations that, if unmonitored, can spiral into homelessness. National Grid’s [projected price increases], coupled with historically high rent, food, and medical costs, forecast a fiscal environment that will have chilling consequences on an already vulnerable population. We have seen a 46 percent year-to-date increase in women coming to our shelter seeking services related to housing, and we are taking steps to increase our capacity to meet a further rise in demand ahead of the winter season.”
The inextricable link of housing to food and fuel prompted the Boston Foundation to officially add shelter to the Fund’s coverage. The Food, Fuel & Shelter Fund now more seamlessly addresses these entwined issues. The Fund’s track record and future ambitions led investment firm Baupost Group to make a $50,000 gift in honor of its investors among its year-end donations. (Every year, our partners at The Baupost Group worked with the TBF Donor Relations team to explore year-end giving opportunities and the company has said that it “counts the Boston Foundation as a critical partner in our charitable efforts.”)
In its announcement about this gift, Baupost said, “[L]iving expenses are high and many families are forced to make the difficult choice of whether to ‘heat or eat’ when their budgets are stretched thin. Our gift will help the Food, Fuel and Shelter Fund provide critical support to these families, so they will have a safety net and won’t fall through the cracks.”
Incorporating such donor generosity with some applicable COVID relief funds, the expanded fund is poised to make a real difference in individual’s lives. Prior Food & Fuel partner Interfaith Social Services offers a glimpse of how that can play out.
“Interfaith’s Homesafe program recently assisted a single mother of four daughters, all under 18,” relates Executive Director Rick Doane. “She is a domestic violence victim and has very limited income. In addition, she has a legal aid lawyer assisting her with her housing as the abuser’s family owns the house she is living in. She and her daughters were facing the possibility of having their electricity turned off. We were able to assist her family and pay her total bill within seven days. This mom was emotional when she called to thank us for making sure her family didn’t lose a basic utility.”
The Food, Fuel & Shelter Fund will continue and multiply the impact of the original Food & Fuel Fund. Early grants will be focused on addressing the shelter and other needs of people currently residing in the Mass and Cass area and supporting organizations set up to help households with direct cash support; another round will support organizations that provide critical access to food, utilities and secure shelter to families in Massachusetts. You can read more about the expanded Food, Fuel & Shelter Fund, or make an online donation of $25 or more on the TBF website.